Report from Venezuela Solidarity Symposium

Leading academic scholars and grassroots activists gathered at historic Howard University in Washington, DC, from April 18-20 for the national symposium, “What’s Up With Venezuela: Participatory Democracy or Democracy as Usual?” The meeting provided an opportunity for 200 solidarity activists from across the United States to study the revolutionary changes sweeping through Venezuela.

April 25, 2008

Leading academic scholars and grassroots activists gathered at historic Howard University in Washington, DC, from April 18-20 for the national symposium, “What’s Up With Venezuela: Participatory Democracy or Democracy as Usual?” The meeting provided an opportunity for 200 solidarity activists from across the United States to study the revolutionary changes sweeping through Venezuela.

In 1998, Venezuelans elected Hugo Chavez as a left-populist president to lead the country. Since then, he has worked toward regional integration and against U.S. domination of Latin America. This has placed Venezuela on a collision course with the US. “Chavez is threatening,” political scientist Steve Ellner argued, “because he shows that there are viable alternatives to neoliberalism.” In a region that seems to produce its share of bad news, Venezuela is an example of hopeful and positive change.

A principal theme that ran throughout the symposium was that the Bolivarian Revolution (named after Venezuela’s independence leader Simón Bolívar) is not a movement built around one person. James Early, Director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, said, “Chavez is not the revolution, but a conduit for it.” Venezuelan Supreme Court justice Fernando Vegas explained institutional divisions of power in Venezuela to make his point that Chavez is not a dictator and does not control everything in the country.

Gonzalo Gómez. (Credit: Becker)

Instead of emphasizing Chavez’s role, most of the presenters stressed the importance of constructing a participatory and protagonistic democracy to build new relations between the government and popular organizations. “Democracy is not just formal institutions,” labor leader Gonzalo Gómez with the National Union of Workers (UNT) said, “but also the mobilization of people.” Venezuela Solidarity Network organizer James Jordan argued that participatory democracy begins with organizing at the grassroots level.

While the presenters defended Chavez, they did not give him their uncritical and unqualified support. Gómez argued that much of the positive progress that has been made in Venezuela is not due to Chavez’s leadership, but from dedicated activists pushing him in a leftward direction.

Jorge Guerrero, Venezuelan Consul in New Orleans, explained the growing role of communal councils that are leading toward self-government. In the future, Guerrero predicated, they would not need mayors because people will solve their own problems. Julio Chávez, the mayor of Torres, Venezuela, said that he was one of those working to realize that goal.

“How can they accuse of us being authoritarian and centralist,” Chavez asked, “when we are giving power to the people?”

The communal councils are only one example of the many fundamental transformations in Venezuela. Antonio Gonzalez from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) noted that Venezuela’s wedding of multiparty, participatory elections with a socialistic redistributive process is rather unique. Not only has this led to success for the Bolivarian Revolution, but hopefully it will also make it much more difficult for the United States to justify an invasion of the country.

Although there have been significant advances, there are still numerous bureaucrats from previous governments who are still in positions of power. Perhaps more dangerous are political opportunists who paint themselves as Chavistas (supporters of President Hugo Chavez), but are not ideologically committed to the Bolivarian Revolution. Increasingly, however, career diplomats and government bureaucrats are being replaced by movement activists who are committed to pushing the country toward socialism.

In addition, institutional interests can also place a break on revolutionary change. The Venezuelan Embassy’s Labor Attaché Marcos García emphasized that leftward pressure comes from people (workers), rather than institutions (labor unions) that too often become bogged down in bureaucratic concerns. Social movements are important so that the government does not sell out a revolutionary and socialist project.

Gonzalo Gómez called these social movements the “motor of the revolution.” Clara Herrera from Venezuela’s Central University observed that Chavez is just the tip of the iceberg of changes sweeping through the country as people become increasingly energized through grassroots popular movements. Omar Sierra and Jorge Guerrero from the Boston and New Orleans consulates discussed the roles of Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants in the Bolivarian Revolution. Sierra said that changes in Venezuela are not the will of only one man, but the result of 500 years of Indigenous struggle.

Jorge Guerrero. (Credit: Becker)

Guerrero presented Chavez as a tool that embodies the hopes and aspirations of historically oppressed and excluded peoples to build a new protagonistic and participatory system. Imperialists are opposed to the Venezuelan government because it has allied with the downtrodden. This extends to international policies, as Venezuela has significantly expanded its diplomatic relations with Africa and the Caribbean. For example, students from Mali are studying textile manufacturing in Venezuela so that they can help their country gain value from cotton production rather than exporting the raw materials. These are not vertical relationships of domination, but horizontal ones built around ideas of solidarity.

Economists Adina Mercedes Bastidas and Mark Weisbrot presented data that illustrates dramatic recent economic growth in Venezuela. Chavez’s economic priorities have led to notable increases in health care, education, and employment. Weisbrot responded to an essay that Francisco Rodríguez published in Foreign Affairs that maintained that the poor have been hurt by Chavez’s policies. In a detailed analysis on the Center for Economic and Policy Research website (, Weisbrot shows how Rodríguez cherry-picked his data to reach misleading conclusions. In fact, poverty has dropped in half. Some of the current economic problems, such as a high inflation rate, are the result of long-term structural problems that cannot be turned around overnight.

Miguel Rodríguez, Vice-Minister for the Environment, discussed the challenges of attempting to improve standards of living while still preserving the environment. Venezuela is energy rich, and seeks to develop a sustainable economy. Although as a petroleum exporter gasoline is cheap, the government has emphasized public transit and produces most of its electricity from hydroelectric dams. Furthermore, the government emphasizes conservation as a way to meet peoples’ needs. “Socialism of the twenty-first century has to be ecological,” Rodríguez said. “And it also has to be materially possible.”

The US government and mainstream media, both in Venezuela and internationally, have engaged in a relentless disinformation campaign against the Bolivarian Revolution. Steve Ellner said that the hostility has little to do with Chavez’s style, but rather his economic and social policies. In Venezuela, the intransigent opposition to Chavez is based on conservative support for neoliberal policies that advocate shifting resources from the poor and marginalized and back towards the wealthy and privileged elite classes.

During the 1980s, Venezuelan governments engaged in blatant censorship of the media. Today, that does not happen, and there are more press freedoms than at any other point in the country’s history. The press remains overwhelmingly in private hands, owned by a wealthy elite deeply antagonistic to Chavez’s socialist project.

Mark Weisbrot gave Francisco Rodríguez’s essay in Foreign Affairs as one example of the constant barrage of misinformation. Without a popular media, Gonzalo Gómez said, a participatory and protagonistic democracy will not be possible. This does not happen automatically, but we need to get people accustomed to using these tools. The Venezuelan government has facilitated a move in this direction by creating spaces for community radio. “If the press is less anti-Chavez,” Olivia Burlingame Goumbri from the Venezuela Information Office contended, “it is because of growing popular support for Chavez.”

Journalist and sociologist Greg Wilpert explained how Venezuela has one of the most safe and secure voting systems in the world. Perceptions of fraud or a politicized electoral council are not based in fact. Wilpert positioned himself as a free speech advocate, and argued that the media is too important to be held in private hands that respond to corporate interests. Rather, public accountability is important to democratize the means of communication.

Attorney Eva Golinger explained how the attacks on Venezuela increased dramatically in 2005 when Condoleezza Rice was elevated to Secretary of State in the United States. The United States creates and funds a right-wing opposition in Venezuela through institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy.

Venezuelan lawyer José Pertierra pointed to the hypocrisy in U.S. attempts to classify Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. While there is no evidence that Venezuela sponsors or engages in terrorism, the U.S. military is in the midst of its own torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. More blatant is the case of Luis Posada Carrilles, who blew up a Cuban airliner with a toothpaste bomb in 1976 as it left Venezuela. Not only was Posada Carrilles a CIA operative, he also currently lives freely in the US. Refusals to extradite him to Venezuela means that the U.S. supports terrorism.

The symposium ended with a Lobby Day, with participants taking what they learned to Congressional Representatives on Capitol Hill.

The Venezuela Solidarity Network sponsored the symposium. The purpose of VSN is to increase communication among groups that oppose US intervention in Venezuela, support the right of the Venezuela people to self-determination, and support the Bolivarian revolution.

Marc Becker is a Latin American historian and a member of Community Action on Latin America (CALA), in Madison, Wisconsin.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.